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Questions about Nutrition Facts

By Burkey Belser
August 1, 1999
Questions about Nutrition Facts

This article was originally published by I.D. Magazine.

Is there anything that in retrospect you think could have been different in the design of the label? Could there be future changes?

I’ve got to answer the last question first. We also designed the EnergyGuide, a label that began to appear on all major appliances in 1984. Recently, unbeknownst to us, the label changed. The new goal must have been to simplify the old label. The old label gave consumers the information they needed to calculate their yearly energy bill for that specific appliance—not an activity that I suspect many consumers leapt to enjoy on a summer evening. Now the label has been simplified to compare one appliance with another, a single goal it should have coveted all along. So while I may not be thrilled with the design result of the revised label, I applaud the goal to recognize that we can improve labeling in response to consumer behavior. That label was changed. This one will be, too. People hate change and demand it at the same time. Go figure.

“Could anything in retrospect have been different in our design?” You know what amazes me? That my answer is “No,” While we were adamant about three features of the design (that it have a name, “Nutrition Facts,” a box around it and type be at least 8 pt), we were mostly “rational” about all other elements—weighing the evidence, listening to consumer and industry concerns, etc. You can thank whoever developed the process of lawmaking for our success. In making law, interested people make a proposition. Others react. Language is modified and ultimately, amid lots of discussion, an idea becomes law. I was impressed with the process. It’s true we were a strong design team, but I don't think anyone would think we were plain old buttheaded. We tried to explain our design position every time.

Why did you reject the pie chart and rising sun approach to the label?

We rejected the pie chart because it demanded a second order of literacy beyond words. Pie charts demand visual acuity in addition to some geometry. You and I may take those diagrams for granted, but eight year olds don’t comprehend them, nor do those whose education stalled.

If anything stunned me about this design process, it was our attempt to measure the disparity in understanding that education and fluency in a language brings. Wow! In an important way, my whole world opened up to the challenge of communication. Never had I thought getting an idea across to someone else was so difficult. Every designer should get this opportunity. We would all be better designers if we faced such “simple” challenges.

The rising sun was rejected because consumers could not distinguish it from a setting sun. I suppose if your glass if half-full, then the sun is rising; if it’s half-empty, then—you know—it’s twilight. We had the same problem with all the symbols we chose to illustrate the label. Some Americans think a red star indicates an important nutrient; others think it’s spicy. That’s what’s magical about America and what’s impossible about illustrating label design for Americans.

Candy manufacturer labeling?

That designer is, I apologize for saying it, just plain wrong. The label was designed with every substrate and product size in mind. Exemptions and exceptions exist for small packages—the labeling requirements are reduced. As for unusual or difficult substrates, I have seen Nutrition Facts brilliantly printed on clear plastic packages of shoestring potatoes from Thailand and badly printed on rice boxes from America. Substrate is a challenge, but not an insurmountable obstacle. Otherwise why print on that particular substrate at all? Do you think the manufacturer will accept a poorly printed logo or product name? Get real.

Yes, deviation from the logo and the specified format is a constant problem. The FDA indicated to me that their first goal was manufacturer/consumer acceptance; their second goal, policing. But now that consumers and manufacturers have embraced the label, I would expect the FDA to step up their enforcement of the label specifications. Sophisticated manufacturers that value consumers have adopted the guidelines wholeheartedly. Others just may not understand the value consistency lends to ease of reading, comprehension and consumer acceptance. But think about the work Massimo Vignelli did for the National Park Service signage and publications years ago that we all treasure today! Consumers of food are much more dependent on manufacturer compliance than Vignelli was from his one “manufacturer.” My hope is that manufacturers will agree, “Let’s give this tiny piece of ‘national land’ that is a Nutrition Label to all Americans.”